In 2008 an aspiring model named Katie Piper made the headlines after becoming the victim of an acid attack which left her with third degree burns, partially blind in one eye, and unable to eat without the use of a plastic tube. The attack, carried out in north London by a friend of her jealous ex-boyfriend, was shocking in the extreme.
Acid attacks, in which sulphuric acid is thrown over the victim, cause the skin to melt, sometime exposing the bone and often blinding the victim in one or both eyes. While a relatively uncommon occurrence the UK, acid violence has grown into a potent crime culture in other parts of the world. In Bangladesh, an attack takes place every two days.
Attacks in Bangladesh are usually the result of rejected marriage proposals, land disputes or the desire for revenge. The overwhelming majority of victims are young women and children. Permanently disfigured and psychologically scarred, survivors are often shunned from their local communities, making it impossible for them to find work or get married.
Between May 1999 and December 2010, some 2,433 women, children and men in Bangladesh fell victim to acid attacks. Though the rate of acid violence is in decline, the number of attacks remains alarmingly high - there have been 37 this year alone.
Last month the UK’s Minister of State for International Development, Alan Duncan, visited victims in The Acid Survivors Foundation hospital in Dhaka, to learn about their plight. The Department of International Development has been supporting the Acid Survivors Foundation since 2004, providing funding to the tune of £1m.
The ASF works to provide survivors with medical, legal and rehabilitation support, helping them to reintegrate into society. ASF treats around 450 acid survivors per year including new, follow-up and out- patients at its 40-bed hospital. The foundation deals directly with around 46 per cent of acid attack survivors in Bangladesh.
Speaking to The Independent, Minister Alan Duncan said: “It was a very moving and harrowing experience. There has been one attack in the UK in the past year. It would be reprehensible if this crime culture were to spread to the UK. It is so revolting, it must be stamped out with great ferocity."
Turning to the victims, whom he described as suffering burns akin to “spit fire pilots in World War Two”, Mr Duncan said: “They are inspirational. We would question whether we wanted to live. They are put through the hell of it but they show determination and real leadership - they are inspiring people. It was quite moving.
“I have two messages to Bangladesh,” the Minister continued. “One is that you have to rid the country of this ghastly crime, and secondly, you must remember victims. They are treated like lepers, it is the way we would have treated disabled people years ago. Stamp out the crime and welcome victims back.”
Mr Duncan praised the work of the ASF: “It’s about rebuilding their faces and rebuilding their character,” he said. “We want to make it [the hospital in Dhaka] less of a colony where people stay and more of a hospital from which people emerge. We are ardent about saying the country must start thinking about them”.
To find out more, or to make a donation to the ASF, go to www.acidsurvivors.org